When we open ourselves up to the world, travel to other regions and countries, see and live in different geographies, experience other cultures, climates and biomes, we have the opportunity to be intimate with and understand world’s very different than our own. The world is vast and its peoples and organisms, though astoundingly diverse, are closely related. Even if we could travel ‘everywhere’, having a meaningful experience with all of it is simply not possible. It is dangerously presumptuous to assume that anyone of us might understand all of this. Such travel, should we want to, isn’t possible for the large majority of us, which does not mean that there is therefore no point in traveling to where we can. If our goal is deeper than simply ticking off places and experiences, if we are seeking to understand, to ‘grow’ ourselves, our limited travels can still serve us. For the rest of us it is through reading and the sharing of stories that we can gain such insight, as long as the authors, our guides, are themselves astute observers who are engaged in the places and peoples of which they write. There are many such writers…I can think of none better than Arundhati Roy who writes so beautifully, imaginatively and painfully of her beloved home India. Continue reading
Category Archives: Political Action
Hyper-Individualism, the Dismissal of Civil Society and its Pending End
Please excuse the following political rant…I can’t help myself. Read it or don’t. There will be more horticulture and science to come. Again, my sociology side spilth over!
We Americans, well, we white dudes, like to picture ourselves as rugged individuals, self-made made men, brave and lonely cowboys, rebels standing up against tyranny….Our fortunes rise and fall due to our own efforts, efforts that others work to thwart. We pride ourselves in our ability to work our own ‘bootstraps’. We are above all else individuals standing against a rising tide, of mediocrity, of those who stand against us. Our success is attributable to our own strength, genius and persistence. We are ‘heroes’ in search of a cause who succeed in spite of others. This is deeply ingrained in many of us. We are products of our culture and as Americans it is part of our identity. For many of us it is a totally foreign concept to credit anyone else with our success, though we readily blame any and all others for our failures. This makes it all the more remarkable that while we live in a complex society, enjoying all of its benefits, supports and technologies, that we can so readily deny the assistance that each and everyone of us receives, though society’s ‘largesse’ is distributed far from evenly or even ‘fairly’. The poor get less. The rich get more. It is written into our laws. It is evident in our interactions and the trajectory of each of our lives. While this characteristic of our culture and ourselves may have served many over the formation and growth of America across a ‘new’ land, over time its ‘faults’ became more obvious and the costs it has exacted less and less excusable. Continue reading
Nature as a Model For Society and the Economy
For years now my real interest has been in plants and the life sciences. This has lead me to better understand the physics and chemistry of life, of the organism, as I attempt to understand the truly awesome and fantastical phenomenon that is life itself. I find it impossible to ignore the links between all of the sciences and it should not be too surprising that what one might learn in biology can have application for our own human species, including the social aspects of our lives, because whether we talk about art and beauty, economics or the institutions we share as humans, all are an outgrowth of our lives and the forces and cycles that govern us. Primary among these is the phenomenon of relationship whether between the various ‘nested’ and interlinked cells in our own bodies or the countless organisms we share this world with, with which we in fact evolved, in both competitive and cooperative ways. John Donne once pronounced in a poem that, ‘No man is an island’ and he meant that quite literally. Our fate and health are all bound to one another whether we like it our not, in relationships which can be mutually beneficial, or, if we choose to ignore and deny them, in mutually destructive ways.
Ecology is the study of a shared community of organisms, its description and how it all fits together, its relationships, ‘eco’ arising from the old greek word for household and logos, which speaks to order, purpose and form. Economy, begins with that same concept of ‘household’ only its suffix comes from the greek word meaning management or distribution and refers to the function of the household, its processes and how it produces, distributes or apportions its resources and products…it refers to the actions whereby the ‘household’ lives, the actions, that characterize its many relationships. In ancient Greece the economy revolved around the household. In their world economic actions were not simply those by which a society achieves material ends, the Greeks also constrained it to those activities which resulted in ‘praiseworthy’ outcomes, those which provided a larger benefit to the household. (Greek society, not perfect, was much like our own, placing women in a subservient role and was dependent upon slavery. Like American democracy, it was exclusive, but capable of being expanded to include all peoples.)
The two concepts remain closely linked though today our understanding of economy includes only those parts of the larger community’s operation, the money economy, that produces material benefit and wealth. Any harm accrued or costs imposed on others is not directly relevant if such costs have been ‘outside’ of the transaction, beyond the responsibility of the buyer and seller’s deal. Leaders have mutually decided to exclude all else. We define our economy in a limited way that serves the production of wealth and its accumulation, making profit the purpose and most relevant factor in economic decision making, placing outside it that which we choose to, that which we under value and take for granted. The two largest examples of this are our exclusion of domestic or women’s work, and the contribution of the environment. To include them would radically change our economic calculations and the very concept of profit.
Profit is what remains after costs are considered. To the degree that costs can be excluded then, profit is increased. This ‘habit’ of exclusion extends throughout society and extends to whole sectors of the human population and beyond, distorting our decision making and the broader social and political structures that govern our lives….Our understanding of economics today exists outside of ethics. Ethics and ethical behavior, if it is to factor into it, must be imposed. That is the responsibility of a society through its political processes. Such decisions lie within the realm of possibility though considerable power is aligned behind our current model and we behave as if they are fixed and unchangeable. (See this PDF to understand how far our economic ideas have strayed from the thinking and goals of the ancient Greeks.) The Greeks rightly recognized the economy as the engine of the ‘household’ and society, the system that, through nature’s largesse and human labor, creates that which sustains us. It is necessary that an economy be regulated through rational decision making. Such a system ‘freed’ of its responsibility to society to move it in a beneficial direction, is more likely to simultaneously squander its world and resources while failing to meet the needs of its people and the many species that comprise it. The Greeks understood that by not limiting the pursuit of luxury the capacity of nature to fulfill its demands would be compromised.
This last year has driven this point home for me as the pandemic and our divisive politics, both plagues on this world, work to drive us apart. These compound the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor, stranding ever more of the middle class on their own as well. We’ve conflated what we want with what we need and released individual greed to pursue its ends freely. I have been studying the topics of evolution, natural selection, random mutation and the role of energy in life, acting as a driving, creative, force behind evolution, increasing complexity and the self-organization of organisms, which in the world of physics are recognized as far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, taking higher quality energy in, utilizing it in their growth and metabolism, before exhausting it outside of their ‘bodies’. Organisms have the ability to self-catalyze, reproduce and maintain themselves as long as energy flows through them uninterrupted. These phenomenon lend weight to our understanding that life is not a random occurrence, there is something inevitable about it, the underlying physics and chemistry of the universe pushing the process. Organisms are living, self-reinforcing, complex ‘nested’ systems, each composed of successful, dynamic patterns, that repeat in innumerable forms, between very narrow limits. Organisms exist in the ‘moment’ along the energetic cusp between life and death, that sweet spot within which our chemistry and metabolism remain, between sub-critical and supra-critical states, stasis and conflagration. There are countless lessons for us to learn from biology that we can apply to our own lives, because life is not an accident, nor is it a singular miraculous event…it is rooted within and powered by the forces of nature.
We exist within a complex network of organisms, a network of self-sustaining systems, made possible and animated by the flow of energy as it moves from low to high entropy, from order to randomness, sunlight ‘becoming’ living tissue, feeding successive trophic levels, endlessly cycling. All of life exists in this singular moment entirely dependent upon the health and vitality of the whole, the process of which each individual is a part, with a role to play, which effects every living thing and of what will follow. Through our broader economic behavior we have set ourselves outside of this essential process of nature. We cannot know ultimately where this will take life, but we do know, with some confidence, that if we interrupt or compromise it, we put everything at risk.
What Do We Do When the Whole World Feels Like its Falling to Pieces?
In this blog I focus on plants. Any gardener, botanist or horticulturist knows that plants, all living organisms, live in an incredibly complex, interwoven network of systems, each affecting the others, the health of anyone, in large part determined by the health of the ‘whole’. Life does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. We humans are also very much living organisms and subject to the same kind of limits as any species. What we build and produce, including those more abstract things like our social and economic systems upon which we are very much dependent, are subject to the same natural laws and limits, whether we recognize them or not. Very much a part of this is how we value other life collectively. Just because many may say other people and species are of less value, does not make this fact. The laws and ways of ‘man’ must remain within, and consistent with, the laws of nature. We are not at liberty to treat other life as expendable. We owe a debt and responsibility to all life. Life permits and supports us so it is incumbent upon us to do the same for it. Such is the natural law of reciprocity. Continue reading
Toward a Redefinition of Work
In this time of political chaos and environmental threats it is difficult to keep my mind only on plants….Nothing in the living world is easily separable from the whole, its context. The following is reflective of my interest in people. My first degree was in sociology.
Work is what we do with our lives. It is what we ‘spend’ our lives doing, whether we are paid or compensated well or not, whether it is a joy or drudgery. Through our ‘work’ we give our lives purpose and meaning, or we don’t. When we speak of it, it is as an expression of our lives…one’s ‘life’ work.
Work is a reflection of our place in our community and society, our role. It is through ‘work’ that the needs of the community are met. What compensation we receive is in proportion to how our community and society values us as individuals as well as the work that we do. When work is not this, when our work itself is demeaned, so are we who do it. When this happens to us we search for other ways to find value in our own lives…or for distraction. When we receive only monetary remuneration for our work, when even we ourselves, fail to recognize the value of the work that we do, when it isn’t ‘fulfilling’, we have a huge hole to fill in our lives.
It is difficult, but doable, to retain one’s dignity in one’s work when those around us recognize neither the value of our work nor our lives. Sadly, we have fallen into the trap set by the larger economy and owners for us, measuring value by the dollars that they are willing to pay. We are raising a generation who sees little value in the necessity of manual work, of hand labor…even the construction trades, historically valued and well compensated, is attracting fewer of our young people. We are learning not to seek satisfaction in paid work, that pay should be enough and that fulfillment, satisfaction, should be found in our shrinking free time, in recreational pursuits, which are defined very narrowly and separately from work.
Work today is, by and large, not creative. It has been reduced to a narrow Protestant, even Calvinistic definition, as a kind of servitude, even a punishment, something we must do to attain our reward and salvation. We have demeaned not only work, but our own value as human beings in the process. Because we spend so much of our lives doing it, work should be creative, fulfilling and satisfying, in multiple ways. We should pursue it because it is satisfying allowing us to contribute to our communities and the support of our families. We are not interchangeable cogs.
There is nothing ‘fair’ about the vast range of pay, the chasm, between those who ‘labor’ and create the product or service and those who own it and decide who gets what. We are all taught that life is not fair, though we have a base understanding that it should be. We have learned that those in positions of power will take what they can and that we will be left with what remains…and, many of us, were our positions switched, would do the same…and very few of us see how simple and just the solution is. We have been taught that money and wealth is adequate compensation for unfulfilling work and we play and recreate very hard to make up for what we’ve given up. We do not live our lives as we do because we must, we do it out of choice, informed or not. Right or wrong.
How we value work reflects how we value our own lives and those of others, how we structure jobs, our relationship with work, our relationships with one another. We need to redefine our idea of work, set it in proper relationship with our lives, make it mean more than a paycheck. All work, if worth doing, should afford those who do it adequate and just compensation so that they can live healthy and secure lives. Work should be important in and of itself. Work should add value to our own lives while it does the same for the world around us…instead of a disconnected opportunity to take for ourselves. It should emphasize and build the relationships between us instead of set us against one another as it does in today’s world in which we literally consume the Earth while diminishing the lives of others at the same time. Ultimately, the result of our work must make the world a better place, because to set the standard lower is to compromise our lives and the Earth. Our work, in this sense, is our ‘contribution’ to the planet and as is true in all things, our impacts are both individual and accumulative. We build or destroy through our combined efforts. This is something we must understand if the human ‘experiment’ is to continue.
Recognizing and Using the Power We still Have: Moving Toward a More Sane & Livable Future
I know, politics again! Gardening affords us all an escape from the mess of politics…but that ‘mess’ promises to take even that from us.
I’ve heard it argued that there is no point in having money and power if you do not use them. It certainly seems to be a popular or even dominant view in the US today. In a country where many of us feel relatively powerless to affect change or even have some degree of control to keep our own lives from falling to pieces, many of us would seem to identify with the man who today epitomizes the extreme of this position, our president, Donald Trump. His standard places winning above all else and it doesn’t matter what’s at stake, if he simply says he wants something, that is the only thing that matters. He must win! Nothing and no one can matter more. To compromise is losing. To take others and their position into consideration, is weakness….Whether there are other legitimate positions on something does not matter, once a position is taken, game on and there is no retreat, because this narrow idea of one’s honor matters far more than what might be best, or fair, or ethical, legal or moral. Making these choices is a personal selfish matter. There is no point in making an informed decision because being correct, or accurate, making the best decision based on our best scientific understanding of a problem or the most considered decision based on the consequences that will follow…doesn’t enter the ‘thought’ process at any point. What matters is being in control and showing others that you are the most powerful. To do this you are willing to use every tool at your disposal. Continue reading
On Ecology, Politics and Climate Change: the Links that Tear us Asunder
Warning!!! This is a rant! It’s political, economic, ecological and, most definitely, covers all of the connections between with climate change, these things and our future as a species. I hope you choose to read it, but be forewarned!!
I woke up yesterday at 4:30am, unable to go back to sleep, so I got up and began writing this. The state of the world, the absolute idiocy, meanness and short sightedness of politics today, the undeniable enormity of climate change and its inevitable impacts for every organism on the planet, drives me from paralyzing frustration, to near rage, to profound sadness and despair. Most days all I can do is seek escape and I do this through gardening, reading eclectically, trying to follow some kind of routine, going for walks, a swim or a hike, sharing time with friends or delving into research on plants and the everyday miracles within them and their wondrously choreographed lives here on this planet….I spent my entire morning writing and rewriting this (and returned to it the following day, now today). It is me ‘sharing’. Yes, it’s a rant, it’s a bit of analysis, it’s a window into the world as I see it and it contains a hope I have…that I have to cling to most days, for this world and all that lives upon it, because what we have done, what we continue to do, is so profoundly destructive and disheartening to me. Continue reading
On the Necessity of Poetry in the World
Unlike the Irish, who embrace and celebrate their poets, or the Japanese with their several centuries long history of haiku, we Americans embrace the rational, the utilitarian and too often jot our observations down in reductionist, artless lines….I know that is not always true, but face it, we scoff at poetry, unless it is dressed in the postures of hip-hop or pop culture, ambient lyrics vying for our attention in the ‘battle’ to attract customers. Poets take as a given the mystery and beauty of life. They do not shy away from the sharp edges and risks. Like visual artists, whose eyes cause them to see the world in a multiplicity of ways, poets describe a mutable, ineffable world, that is different from moment to moment, whose ‘boundaries’ shift and transform that which they appear to contain…as if the world were an experiment in the shifting perspective of quantum physics….Poets ‘paint’ with swaths and scrawls of letters across the page, measured and rhythmic, a code, an illumination, a pathway they’ve scribed across a page, from heart to heart across the beating Earth. We Americans crave solidity, a stable world where being and life are fixed and knowable…we leave the rest for God and the egg-heads as if these things don’t really matter to us…as they are beyond our ken and responsibility. The world of the poet raises too many questions for us and questions can undermine the investment we’ve put into our fixed world image upon which we’ve staked our lives. Americans are blindered gamblers and most of us have placed our bets on the same outcome.
I do read poetry…even attempt to write it sometimes. I read science and history, politics and about the social ways of my fellows. I garden and often agonize over what is ‘wrong’ in this world…what we can do to heal it. Poetry teaches us that connection is often not found in a straight line. Solution is not found in the old ways of thinking, ways that can only lead us down this path we seem to be fatally connected to. Poetry is opening and inclusive, it speaks to what we share, what we stand to lose. To read it requires something different of us, that we exercise and strengthen long neglected muscles, muscles that once moved us through our childhood worlds of wonder and awe. The adult world has largely banished this, stripped life of wonder, and with it, the value integral to the heart of all things. We scoff at those who speak of this, call them childish and dismiss them….This is what we’ve lost and the world so desperately needs today. Continue reading
A Course Correction: The Wild and the Human, On Repairing the Relationship Between Politics, Economics and the Environment
“We are the odd ones, with bright eyes, that see the wonder of a bountiful world. We don’t look through rose colored glasses…we’ve only removed the veil that breaks and blinds….Now, to cut the strings that tie us to the lie. ” Lance Wright, Jan. 2019
Gardeners are my people…well, actually, so are botanists, horticulturists, entomologists, ecologists, the weekend outdoor adventurers who in regular moments of awe, pause to take in the daily wonder of the world…anyone, really, who works with or has become enamored with the living natural world (and I’m going to include geologists too, at least those not taking their livelihood from resource extraction). I have a theory, that as our modern world becomes increasingly urbanized, and transformed by our use to that which supports urban living, more of us are becoming consciously aware of what we are losing, of the natural world that has been sacrificed, developed, along the way…and in ways, large and small, many, but still far too few of us, are choosing to make our lives reflect this understanding. We question the ‘stuff’ we have crowded our lives with, that ‘stuff’ we’ve spent our lives to procure while following the dream we’ve all been sold on. Many of us garden on whatever we have available to us whether it’s a quarter acre, a Juliet balcony or a kitchen counter space. We plant gardens for food or to support pollinators, to have something green and growing in our homes, we grow small succulents for their simple beauty, flowers for the vase or plants that provide cover and fruit for songbirds, there are many reasons…and we do this for the pleasure that it gives us, for the satisfaction that we are doing something to heal an increasingly ‘broken’ world. Yet the world continues to spiral down into more ugly chaos, in spite of our increasing awareness…it is not enough. I find myself drawn even more into the wonder and beauty of a single plant, the ‘miracle’ of life and the amazing complexity, the inter-relatedness of living communities…because, in spite of how our society views this planet and the countless organisms it routinely dismisses as secondary, and unnecessary or of little commercial value…life is in fact the center of meaning and value. Continue reading
The Politics of Life: Courage, Imagination and Living a New World
Politics is the process whereby society makes decisions, the process it uses to establish the broader, though sometimes quite specific, rules by which we live and work. Our government is a representative, democratic republic. Our governance is a public matter intended to serve the public good…to support or improve the lives of its citizens…not that of a monarch, an oligarch, despot, feudal lord or leader of a church. It is a democracy in which citizens exercise their right to be heard through their vote and we do this generally by electing representatives who work in our interest. In some cases issues are referred to citizens or initiated by us on particular matters, but we do this primarily through our election of representatives. Ideally representatives focus and amplify the will of their constituents, expressing this through the bills that they introduce and their vote. If this will is muddled, indecisive or polarized, so to is its direction leaving an opening for other influences, such as lobbyists, to effect their votes. It can be easily argued that a divided constituency is just what powerful interests want as it will increase their own influence…divide and conquer! When that collective voice of the citizens is more focused and powerful, powerful interest lose influence and political decision making will reflect this. We are ‘taught’ early on that our ‘voice’ is limited to our voting in elections, but this is not true. Everything we do, all of our choices, have political ramifications, what we buy, where we buy it from, how we get to work, what we do there, how we choose to spend our non-working hours, how we treat others. We help shape the world through our choices. Government is an extension of our collective voice, our collective actions. Government is not the cavalry, not the hero, in our story…we are and we are also our own enemy and fool. If anyone is going to ‘ride’ to our rescue it is each one of us. Continue reading